For years, every time I spoke about my experience of sexual assault within the context of therapy, I smiled.
The position of my mouth and the words coming from it were incongruent. As a therapist today, I witness this incongruence in my clients.
Yes, there is social conditioning that occurs for women to always present as upbeat, and this does impact the therapeutic process. But more than that, there is a physiological and neurochemical response that occurs in the body when we express a smile.
There are around 43 muscles in the face, all of which are controlled by a cranial nerve that begins in the skull and wraps around the ears. It can take up to 17 of these muscles to smile.
When we smile, neuronal signals travel from the cortex of our brain to the brainstem which stimulates the cranial muscles to contract into a smile. These same signals then loop back to the brain, bringing with it emotional feedback which is translated by the amygdala.
The amygdala, the alarm system of the body, detects a threat and works to keep us safe. It is also associated with the limbic system, which processes behavioural and emotional responses. When we smile, we deactivate the amygdala and bring a sense of calm to the body.
We alter our emotional experience by smiling, because when we smile, we shift the state of our central nervous system from sympathetic to parasympathetic.
The sympathetic nervous system is the part that is active when you feel nervous or scared. You may be familiar with the “fight or flight” response. The experience of trauma is highly correlated to this nervous system state.
When you feel threatened or uneasy, the sympathetic nervous system responds automatically by releasing adrenaline or noradrenaline from your adrenal glands, which speed up your heart rate and get you geared up for action.
The parasympathetic nervous system does the opposite. It counteracts the release of stress hormones such as cortisol, as well as other relaxing hormones and endorphins to relax the mind and body when experiencing stressful conditions. Cortisol, also known as a steroid hormone, is produced in humans within the adrenal gland.
The body is continuously working for homeostasis; therefore, when we speak of our experiences of sexual assault (or any other form of trauma), we plunge the body back into a sympathetic state. Smiling, consequentially becomes one way of creating a sense of balance by tapping into the parasympathetic nervous system.
This is because each time you smile, a cocktail of feel-good chemicals is released straight into your bloodstream. There are four critical hormones produced by the brain that are released. These include neuropeptides, serotonin, endorphins, and dopamine. These hormones work to regulate the body and ensure that one does not become overwhelmed, dysregulated, or emotionally flooded.
Smiling while speaking about sexual assault or any form of pain is a neurophysiological response to keep the body safe. To keep you safe. To keep you regulated. To keep you okay.
The body is always working in beautiful ways to ensure that we remain in balance, safe, contained, and okay.
So if the voice of judgement ever pops up regarding why you keep smiling about something you “know” you should have pain over—this is your invitation to pause. To acknowledge the wisdom of your body. And, how smiling is one of the beautiful ways your body and mind are working together to keep you regulated while you work toward your healing.
So keep smiling dear one, until the day you find that you no longer need to smile to be regulated. And from that day forward, I hope you keep smiling—just because.
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